February 19, 2014 00:00 By Angela Lock
Our neighbour's pagoda-filled countryside is best admired from the deck of a converted Rhine vessel
The countryside passes by as if it were a travelogue on a movie screen. Bamboo huts atop stilts, grazing cattle, tiny hamlets without electricity, and everywhere you look, pagodas with golden roofs.
A saying in these parts goes, “If you are standing somewhere and don’t see a pagoda, then you’re not in Myanmar.”
The entire atmosphere puts the guests on board the river cruise ship in a meditative mood. Some are simply sitting there, silently and in rapt fascination taking in the idyllic scenery.
On the banks of the river, women are washing clothes, children are swimming and laughing, a farmer is ploughing his field with a team of oxen. It’s a glimpse of a lifestyle that has scarcely changed over the centuries.
The white cruise vessel, the Road to Mandalay, is gliding along the muddy brown Irrawaddy River that lazily winds through the landscape. The ship was built in 1964 for cruises on the Rhine River in Europe.
Since 1996, it has been in service on the 2,170-kilometre Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s longest river. Rudyard Kipling, Nobel Literature Prize laureate and author of “The Jungle Book”, once lyrically praised the Irrawaddy in a poem entitled “The Road to Mandalay”.
And in fact, this waterway is used to transport anything and everything – rice, cars, oxen, teak wood and tourists.
“The Irrawaddy demands our highest concentration, what with its constantly changing depths,” captain Myo Lwin says. The 58-year-old, who used to pilot huge container ships across the world’s oceans, is a fan of the German engineering of his ship.
Today, the Road to Mandalay is a very comfortable way to travel the Irrawaddy, a voyage made all the more pleasant by the services of the smiling and friendly crew.
Loud music can be heard as the ship docks at the village of Moe Dar, where passengers can disembark for a tour. Small boys, dressed as colourfully as princes, are seen riding on gaily-decorated ponies through the muddy lanes of the village.
They are taking part in a ceremony marking their acceptance into a monastery.
Inside the monastery, a monk is shaving the heads of the boys, symbolically designating them as novices who will be following the path of the Buddha for a number of weeks.
The parents are looking proud and the visitors are touched as well, being able to witness the ceremonies, part of the deep Buddhist faith that is one of Myanmar’s special treasures.
The further north that the Road to Mandalay proceeds, the wilder and less populated the green landscape becomes.
With rain coming down, low-hanging clouds and a narrow gorge deep in the jungle, a mystical atmosphere envelops the ship. No modern buildings are to be seen, one brand-new bridge being the only exception.
A further excursion on land offers a chance to see elephants at work in a forestry camp.
“Myanmar is the last country on earth where elephants are used for forestry work,” tour guide Mimi says. “We have about 3,000 work elephants and just about as many wild elephants.”
In one camp the elephants impressively display how nimble they actually are. One elephant is pulling a tree trunk from a pond, having at once to go up a slippery embankment and at the same time balancing a further tree trunk on its tusks.
At the end of the river cruise the Road to Mandalay docks directly at Bagan. The majestic landscape of pagodas is filled with some 3,000 temples and monasteries.
A horse-drawn carriage transports guests to the brick edifices which chiefly date back to the 11th to 13th centuries. It is an almost indescribable mirage-like architectural masterpiece, an overpowering view that holds visitors spellbound.